He comes to serve
Is that a subpoena in his pocket, or is Jim Wardlow just happy to see you?
Jim Wardlow stalked his prey. He sat in his truck staring at her photo and keeping an eagle eye out for her BMW. She knew he was hunting her. She was elusive—paranoid. But that didn’t matter; he knew he’d get his target.
It was Sunday evening, and her Roseville house was completely dark. Wardlow edged his truck down the long d-shaped street, approaching the corner. Suddenly he glimpsed a BMW making a fast U-turn. The chase was on.
Wardlow followed her and then let her think she had lost him. Then, he doubled back to her street and parked a few houses down.
Wardlow lives for such moments. “There’s no better feeling when you are waiting for something to happen, and then all of a sudden, the garage door comes up, and you know they are in the house. There’s no way to control the adrenaline that starts pumping,” said Wardlow. “When I saw her drive into her garage, I felt like I was bungee jumping.”
But he had to be cool. The cat-and-mouse game wasn’t over yet. This woman had evaded him for weeks. She could still bolt. To block off her escape, Wardlow parked his truck in her driveway and hopped out.
“I waited until the garage door was low enough that if she backed up, she’d take off the top half of her BMW and take her garage door out,” said Wardlow. “I didn’t enter the garage but stood at the garage door as she was trying to lower it. Thank God for those garage doors that won’t close on your kids. All I had to do was tap the bottom of the garage, and it would go back up. She was doing her darnedest to get it to close.”
Even though she was trapped, she wasn’t going to make it easy for him. Wardlow knew she could lash out if provoked. He was holding a civil-harassment restraining order for the woman for attacking one of her friends. “It was a cat fight between two women over the fact that one screwed the other’s boyfriend. They got into each other’s face, and one of them got physical,” he said.
Wardlow was tiring of the garage-door standoff. “I’ve got a voice that can carry; you can hear me from a couple blocks away if I’m trying,” he said. “I was able to affect service by simply announcing, ‘I’m here. Don’t close your garage door and don’t back over me.’” Eventually, she came out, and Wardlow gave her the paperwork.
“When I got back to my truck, I just had to sit there and calm myself down,” said Wardlow. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it never changes, no matter how long you’ve been in the game.”
Wardlow, owner of All Pro Attorney Services, has found his sport. There are 15,000 process servers in California and about 300 in the Sacramento area. Process servers are hired by attorneys to deliver subpoenas to witnesses and people being sued. A lot of people don’t want to get the bad news and will go to great lengths to evade the process servers. But servers have just as many ways of hitting their targets.
“We try to be discrete and just go to the door and do a straight-up serve,” said Wardlow. “But if people don’t want to cooperate, then, depending on how much the client wants to spend, we have to resort to other tactics to get to them, such as flowers, pizza or overnight deliveries.”
It is against the law to pretend to be peace officer or a mail carrier, but Wardlow will admit to doing a flower delivery to someone who wouldn’t open her door.
It was Valentine’s Day. “I went to her mother’s house and told her I had flowers and a singing telegram. When I went to serve her, she was waiting on the front porch. I didn’t give her the flowers because they were in a vase, and I didn’t want her to toss the vase at me. I didn’t sing, either, but I did say I was sorry that I had to dupe her. I took the flowers home to my girlfriend. Made points for me,” he said, smiling.
Wardlow has met all types of people in his line of work, even some who get their kids to do the dirty work for them. “I remember a serve where this guy sent this 13-year-old and 10-year-old to the door to lie to me. When I was driving away, I called the guy on the phone and told him, ‘That’s really noble of you, getting your kids to lie. I’m coming back.’ I came back to the door, and the kids cussed me out. This is a real functional family,” observed Wardlow wryly.
“I sat in my car a block away. They were getting ready to go out to dinner. He sent all the kids and their friends out scouring the neighborhood for me. Fortunately, it was raining, and they didn’t see my car,” said Wardlow. “The whole family got in their Chevy Suburban and drove a mile to Applebee’s. I was right behind them. I waited until they parked the car, blocked them in their parking spot, waited until they got out and served them there. I don’t have respect for people who use their minor children that way to avoid getting served.”
For those who want to hide behind their kids, Wardlow has a cautionary tale.
“I remember another situation where I kept going to the door of this house looking for the mother or the father, and this 10-year-old kid kept answering the door. I’d go there day and night, and the kid would answer the door. I thought, ‘Why isn’t this kid in school?’ Finally, I went to his house one day and said, ‘Parents aren’t home again?’
“He said, ‘No, they’re not.’
“'You tell your mom and dad that I’ll be back tomorrow night at 7 p.m. If one or both of them are not here, I’ll call Child Protective Services and report them because you’re not old enough to be here by yourself.’
“The mother stepped out behind the door at that point. She’d been there the entire time,” Wardlow said, rolling his eyes.
Some people believe process servers will go away if they’re ignored. That won’t work with Wardlow. “I once tried 45 times to get to someone and got him on the 46th. I just happened to be driving by his house, and he was standing in his driveway, a sitting duck. Persistence pays off.”
Hunting down evaders usually means using the Internet, the postal service and deed records to track down a person’s residence. If the client is willing to pay, servers will canvas the neighborhood to find out where someone lives, do a stakeout (at $45 an hour) or track down the relatives or associates where someone may be hiding.
“There was this one evader who was hiding out in a wrecking yard. I duped his buddy into having him come to my truck. It was starting to rain. I told him, ‘You don’t want me to drop the papers on the ground because there is a hearing date [printed on them]. If they drop in this puddle, you aren’t going to know when to go to court.’ It took about three minutes to convince him to stick his hand out and take the stuff from me.”
It’s a common misnomer that servers have to touch people with the paperwork. “It’s not a game of tag,” said Wardlow, laughing. “What I see on TV makes me chuckle. A server reaches out and hits the person in the chest with the papers and lets go.” Process servers who have seen the movie Serving Sara have found it hysterically inaccurate.
Though most process serving is lonely and boring, danger is always lurking. Some servers carry pepper spray. Wardlow counts on his trusty tennis shoes to hurry him out of sticky situations. He always parks his car in the direction of the fastest getaway, and he tries to be ready for any surprises. But it doesn’t always work.
“I remember once, as I approached a house, I whistled with a dog whistle. No response. I stepped inside a cyclone fence, got about 10 steps and heard the ‘tink, tink’ of a dog collar. I turned around and saw a 150-pound Rottweiler standing between me and the gate,” said Wardlow. “Scared the hell out of me. I put my hand out and said, ‘STAY! Stay!’ I slowly walked back and got myself on the other side of the gate.”
At home at the end of the day, Wardlow unwinds with a hefeweizen beer and a little mindless television. A former auto mechanic, he says he definitely prefers his current line of work. “It is a lot easier than turning wrenches for a living.”